The Seven Days Battle
June 24 On the night of June 24 the whole of these troops, with the exception of the Valley army, were south of the Chickahominy, holding the earthworks which protected Richmond. Less than two miles eastward, strongly intrenched, lay four of McClellan’s army corps, in round numbers 75,000 officers and men.3
To attack this force, even after Jackson’s arrival,
1 Stuart’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part i.
2 This estimate is rather larger than that of the Confederate historians (Allan, W. H. Taylor, &c., &c.), but it has been arrived at after a careful examination of the strength at different dates and the losses in the various engagements.
3 Return of June 20, O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 238.
was to court disaster. The right was protected by the Chickahominy, the left rested on White Oak Swamp, a network of sluggish streams and impassable swamps, screened everywhere by tangled thickets. It needed not the presence of the siege ordnance, placed on the most commanding points within the lines, to make such a position absolutely impregnable.
North of the Chickahominy, however, the Federals were less favourably situated. The Fifth Army Corps, 25,000 strong,1 under General FitzJohn Porter, had been pushed forward, stretching a hand to McDowell and protecting the railway, in the direction of Mechanicsville; and although the tributaries of the Chickahominy, running in from the north, afforded a series of positions, the right flank of these positions, resting, as Stuart had ascertained, on no natural obstacle, was open to a turning movement. Furthermore, in rear of the Fifth Corps, and at an oblique angle to the front, ran the line of supply, the railway to West Point. If Porter’s right were turned, the Confederates, threatening the railway, would compel McClellan to detach largely to the north bank of the Chickahominy in order to recover or protect the line.
On the north bank of the Chickahominy, therefore, Lee’s attention had been for some time fixed. Here was his adversary’s weak point, and a sudden assault on Porter, followed up, if necessary, by an advance against the railway, would bring McClellan out of his intrenchments, and force him to fight at a disadvantage. To ensure success, however, in the attack on Porter it was necessary to concentrate an overwhelming force on the north bank; and this could hardly be done without so weakening the force which held the Richmond lines that it would be unable to resist the attack of the 75,000 men who faced it. If McClellan, while Lee was fighting Porter, boldly threw forward the great army he had on the south bank, the rebel capital might be the reward of his resolution. The danger
was apparent to all, but Lee resolved to risk it, and his audacity has not escaped criticism. It has been said that he deliberately disregarded the contingency of McClellan either advancing on Richmond, or reinforcing Porter. The truth is, however, that neither Lee, nor those generals about him who knew McClellan, were in the least apprehensive that their over-cautious adversary, if the attack were sudden and well sustained, would either see or utilise his opportunity.
From Hannibal to Moltke there has been no great captain who has neglected to study the character of his opponent, and who did not trade on the knowledge thus acquired, and it was this knowledge which justified Lee’s audacity.
The real daring of the enterprise lay in the inferiority of the Confederate armament. Muskets and shot-guns, still carried by a large part of the army, were ill-matched against rifles of the most modern manufacture; while the smooth-bore field-pieces, with which at least half the artillery was equipped, possessed neither the range nor the accuracy of the rifled ordnance of the Federals.
That Lee’s study of the chances had not been patient and exhaustive it is impossible to doubt. He was no hare-brained leader, but a profound thinker, following the highest principles of the military art. That he had weighed the disconcerting effect which the sudden appearance of the victorious Jackson, with an army of unknown strength, would produce upon McClellan, goes without saying. He had omitted no precaution to render the surprise complete, and although the defences of Richmond were still too weak to resist a resolute attack, Magruder, the same officer who had so successfully imposed upon McClellan at Yorktown, was such a master of artifice that, with 28,000 men and the reserve artillery,1 he might be relied upon to hold Richmond until Porter had been
1 Magruder’s division, 13,000; Huger’s division, 9,000; reserve artillery, 3,000; 5 regiments of cavalry, 2,000. Holmes’ division, 6,500, was still retained on the south bank of the James.
disposed of. The remainder of the army, 2,000 of Stuart’s cavalry, the divisions of Longstreet and the two Hills, 35,000 men all told, crossing to the north bank of the Chickahominy and combining with the 18,500 under Jackson, would be sufficient to crush the Federal right.
The initial operations, however, were of a somewhat complicated nature. Four bridges1 crossed the river on Lee’s left. A little more than a mile and a half from Mechanicsville Bridge, up stream, is Meadow Bridge, and five and a half miles further up is another passage at the Half Sink, afterwards called Winston’s Bridge. Three and a half miles below Mechanicsville Bridge is New Bridge. The northern approaches to Mechanicsville, Meadow, and New Bridge, were in possession of the Federals; and it was consequently no simple operation to transfer the troops before Richmond from one bank of the Chickahominy to the other. Only Mechanicsville and Meadow Bridges could be used. Winston’s Bridge was too far from Richmond, for, if Longstreet and the two Hills were to cross at that point, not only would Magruder be left without support during their march, but McClellan, warned by his scouts, would receive long notice of the intended blow and have ample time for preparation. To surprise Porter, to give McClellan no time for reflection, and at the same time to gain a position which would bring the Confederates operating on the north bank into close and speedy communication with Magruder on the south, another point of passage must be chosen. The position would be the one commanding New Bridge, for the Confederate earthworks, held by Magruder, ran due south from that point. But Porter was already in possession of the coveted ground, with strong outposts at Mechanicsville. To secure, then, the two centre bridges was the first object. This, it was expected, would be achieved by the advance of the Valley army, aided by a brigade from the Half Sink, against the flank and rear of the Federals at Mechanicsville. Then, as soon
1 Lee’s bridge, shown on the map, had either been destroyed or was not yet built.
as the enemy fell back, Longstreet and the two Hills would cross the river by the Meadow and Mechanicsville Bridges, and strike Porter in front, while Jackson attacked his right. A victory would place the Confederates in possession of New Bridge, and the troops north of the Chickahominy would be then in close communication with Magruder.
Lee’s orders were as follows:—’Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, June 24, 1862. General Orders, No. 75.
“I.—General Jackson’s command will proceed to-morrow (June 25) from Ashland towards the Slash (Merry Oaks) Church, and encamp at some convenient point west of the Central Railroad. Branch’s brigade of A. P. Hill’s division will also, to-morrow evening, take position on the Chickahominy, near Half Sink. At three o’clock Thursday morning, 26th instant, General Jackson will advance on the road leading to Pole Green Church, communicating his march to General Branch, who will immediately cross the Chickahominy, and take the road leading to Mechanicsville. As soon as the movements of these columns are discovered, General A. P. Hill, with the rest of his division, will cross the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge, and move direct upon Mechanicsville. To aid his advance the heavy batteries on the Chickahominy will at the proper time open upon the batteries at Mechanicsville. The enemy being driven from Mechanicsville and the passage of the bridge being opened, General Longstreet, with his division and that of General D. H. Hill, will cross the Chickahominy at or near that point; General D. H. Hill moving to the support of General Jackson, and General Longstreet supporting General A. P. Hill; the four divisions keeping in communication with each other, and moving en échelon on separate roads if practicable; the left division in advance, with skirmishers and sharp-shooters extending in their front, will sweep down the Chickahominy, and endeavour to drive the enemy from his position above New Bridge, General Jackson bearing well to his left, turning Beaver Dam Creek, and taking the direction towards
Cold Harbour. They will then press forward towards the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy’s rear, and forcing him down the Chickahominy. An advance of the enemy towards Richmond will be prevented by vigorously following his rear, and crippling and arresting his progress.
“II.—The divisions under Generals Huger and Magruder will hold their position in front of the enemy against attack, and make such demonstrations, Thursday, as to discover his operations. Should opportunity offer, the feint will be converted into a real attack. . . .
“III.—General Stuart, with the 1st, 4th, and 9th Virginia Cavalry, the cavalry of Cobb’s Legion, and the Jeff Davis Legion, will cross the Chickahominy to-morrow (Wednesday, June 25), and take position to the left of General Jackson’s line of march. The main body will be held in reserve, with scouts well extended to the front and left. General Stuart will keep General Jackson informed of the movements of the enemy on his left, and will cooperate with him in his advance. . . .”
June 25 On the 25th Longstreet and the two Hills moved towards the bridges; and although during the movement McClellan drove back Magruder’s pickets to their trenches, and pushed his own outposts nearer Richmond, Lee held firmly to his purpose. As a matter of fact, there was little to be feared from McClellan. With a profound belief in the advantages of defensive and in the strength of a fortified position, he expected nothing less than that the Confederates would leave the earthworks they had so laboriously constructed, and deliberately risk the perils of an attack. He seems to have had little idea that in the hands of a skilful general intrenchments may form a “pivot of operations,’1 the means whereby he covers his most vulnerable point, holds the enemy in front, and sets his main body free for offensive action. Yet
1 The meaning of this term is clearly defined in Lee’s report. “It was therefore determined to construct defensive lines, so as to enable a part of the army to defend the city, and leave the other part free to operate on the north bank.” O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 490.
McClellan was by no means easy in his mind. He knew Jackson was approaching. He knew his communications were threatened. Fugitive negroes, who, as usual, either exaggerated or lied, had informed him that the Confederates had been largely reinforced, and that Beauregard, with a portion of the Western army, had arrived in Richmond. But that his right wing was in danger he had not the faintest suspicion. He judged Lee by himself. Such a plan as leaving a small force to defend Richmond, and transferring the bulk of the army to join Jackson, he would have at once rejected as over-daring. If attack came at all, he expected that it would come by the south bank; and he was so far from anticipating that an opportunity for offensive action might be offered to himself that, on the night of the 25th, he sent word to his corps commanders that they were to regard their intrenchments as “the true field of battle.”1
June 26. 3 a.m. Lee’s orders left much to Jackson. The whole operation which Lee had planned hinged upon his movements. On the morning of the 24th he was at Beaver Dam Station. The same night he was to reach Ashland, eighteen miles distant as the crow flies. On the night of the 25th he was to halt near the Slash Church, just west of the Virginia Central Railway, and six miles east of Ashland. At three o’clock, however, on the morning of the 26th, the Army of the Valley was still at Ashland, and it was not till nine that it crossed the railroad.
10.30 a.m. Branch, on hearing that Jackson was at last advancing, passed the Chickahominy by Winston’s Bridge, and driving Federal pickets before him, moved on Mechanicsville. General A. P. Hill was meanwhile near Meadow Bridge, waiting until the advance of Jackson and Branch should turn the flank of the Federal force which blocked his passage.
3 p.m. At 3 p.m., hearing nothing from his colleagues, and apprehensive that longer delay might hazard the failure of the whole plan, he ordered his advanced guard to seize the bridge. The enemy, already threatened in rear by Branch, at once fell back. Hill followed
1 O.R., vol. xi, part iii, p. 252.
the retiring pickets towards Beaver Dam Creek, and after a short march of three miles found himself under fire of the Federal artillery. Porter had occupied a position about two miles above New Bridge.
The rest of the Confederate army was already crossing the Chickahominy; and although there was no sign of Jackson, and the enemy’s front was strong, protected by a long line of batteries, Hill thought it necessary to order an attack. A message from Lee, ordering him to postpone all further movement, arrived too late.1 There was no artillery preparation, and the troops, checked unexpectedly by a wide abattis, were repulsed with terrible slaughter, the casualties amounting to nearly 2,000 men.2 The Union loss was 360.3
4.30 p.m. Jackson, about 4.30 p.m., before this engagement had begun, had reached Hundley’s Corner, three miles north of the Federal position, but separated from it by dense forest and the windings of the creek. On the opposite bank was a detachment of Federal infantry, supported by artillery.
6 p.m. Two guns, accompanied by the advanced guard, sufficed to drive this force to the shelter of the woods; and then, establishing his outposts, Jackson ordered his troops to bivouac.
It has been asserted by more than one Southern general that the disaster at Beaver Dam Creek was due to Jackson’s indifferent tactics; and, at first sight, the bare facts would seem to justify the verdict. He had not reached his appointed station on the night of the 25th, and on the 26th he was five hours behind time. He should have crossed the Virginia Central Railway at sunrise, but at nine o’clock he was still three miles distant. His advance against the Federal right flank and rear should have been made in co-operation with the remainder of the army. But his whereabouts was unknown when Hill attacked; and although the cannonade was distinctly heard at Hundley’s Corner, he made no effort to lend assistance, and his troops were encamping when their comrades, not three miles
Letter from Captain T. W. Sydnor, 4th Virginia Cavalry, who carried
2 So General Porter. Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, p. 331.
3 O.R., vol. xi, part i, pp. 38, 39.
away, were rushing forward to the assault. There would seem to be some grounds, then, for the accusation that his delay thwarted General Lee’s design; some reason for the belief that the victor of the Valley campaign, on his first appearance in combination with the main army, had proved a failure, and that his failure was in those very qualities of swiftness and energy to which he owed his fame.
General D. H. Hill has written that “Jackson’s genius never shone when he was under the command of another. It seemed then to be shrouded or paralysed. . . . MacGregor on his native heath was not more different from MacGregor in prison than was Jackson his own master from Jackson in a subordinate position. This was the keynote to his whole character. The hooded falcon cannot strike the quarry.”1
The reader who has the heart to follow this chronicle to the end will assuredly find reason to doubt the acumen, however he may admire the eloquence, of Jackson’s brother-in-law. When he reads of the Second Manassas, of Harper’s Ferry, of Sharpsburg and of Chancellorsville, he will recall this statement with astonishment; and it will not be difficult to show that Jackson conformed as closely to the plans of his commander at Mechanicsville as elsewhere.
The machinery of war seldom runs with the smoothness of clockwork. The course of circumstances can never be exactly predicted. Unforeseen obstacles may render the highest skill and the most untiring energy of no avail; and it may be well to point out that the task which was assigned to Jackson was one of exceeding difficulty. In the first place, his march of eight-and-twenty miles, from Frederickshall to Ashland, on June 23, 24, and 25, was made over an unmapped country, unknown either to himself or to his staff, which had lately been in occupation of the Federals. Bridges had been destroyed and roads obstructed. The Valley army had already marched far and fast; and although Dabney hints that inexperienced and sluggish subordinates were the chief cause of delay,
1 Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, pp. 389, 390.
there is hardly need to look so far for excuse.1 The march from Ashland to Hundley’s Corner, sixteen miles, was little less difficult. It was made in two columns, Whiting and the Stonewall division, now under Winder, crossing the railway near Merry Oaks Church, Ewell moving by Shady Grove Church, but this distribution did not accelerate the march. The midsummer sun blazed fiercely down on the dusty roads; the dense woods on either hand shut out the air, and interruptions were frequent. The Federal cavalry held a line from Atlee’s Station to near Hanover Court House. The 8th Illinois, over 700 strong, picketed all the woods between the Chickahominy and the Totopotomoy Creek. Two other regiments prolonged the front to the Pamunkey, and near Hundley’s Corner and Old Church were posted detachments of infantry. Skirmishing was constant. The Federal outposts contested every favourable position. Here and there the roads were obstructed by felled trees; a burned bridge over the Totopotomoy delayed the advance for a full hour, and it was some time before the enemy’s force at Hundley’s Corner was driven behind Beaver Dam Creek.
At the council of war, held on the 23rd, Lee had left it to Jackson to fix the date on which the operation against the Federal right should begin, and on the latter deciding on the 26th, Longstreet had suggested that he should make more ample allowance for the difficulties that might be presented by the country and by the enemy, and give himself more time.2 Jackson had not seen fit to alter his decision, and it is hard to say that he was wrong.
Had McClellan received notice that the Valley army was approaching, a day’s delay would have given him a fine opportunity. More than one course would have been open to him. He might have constructed formidable intrenchments on the north bank of the Chickahominy and
1 Dr. White, in his excellent Life of Lee, states that
the tardiness of the arrival of the provisions sent him from
Richmond had much to do with the delay of Jackson’s march.
2 “Lee’s Attacks North of the Chickahominy.” By General D. H. Hill. Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, p. 347. General Longstreet, however, From Manassas to Appomattox, says Jackson appointed the morning of the 25th, but, on Longstreet’s suggestion, changed the date to the 26th.
have brought over large reinforcements of men and guns; or he might have turned the tables by a bold advance on Richmond. It was by no means inconceivable that if he detected Lee’s intention and was given time to prepare, he might permit the Confederates to cross the Chickahominy, amuse them there with a small force, and hurl the rest of his army on the works which covered the Southern capital. It is true that his caution was extreme, and to a mind which was more occupied with counting the enemy’s strength than with watching for an opportunity, the possibility of assuming the offensive was not likely to occur. But, timid as he might be when no enemy was in sight, McClellan was constitutionally brave; and when the chimeras raised by an over-active imagination proved to be substantial dangers, he was quite capable of daring resolution. Time, therefore, was of the utmost importance to the Confederates. It was essential that Porter should be overwhelmed before McClellan realised the danger; and if Jackson, in fixing a date for the attack which would put a heavy tax on the marching powers of his men, already strained to the utmost, ran some risks, from a strategical point of view those risks were fully justified.
In the second place, an operation such as that which Lee had devised is one of the most difficult manśuvres which an army can be called upon to execute. According to Moltke, to unite two forces on the battle-field, starting at some distance apart, at the right moment, is the most brilliant feat of generalship. The slightest hesitation may ruin the combination. Haste is even more to be dreaded. There is always the danger that one wing may attack, or be attacked, while the other is still far distant, and either contingency may be fatal. The Valley campaign furnishes more than one illustration. In their pursuit of Jackson, Shields and Fremont failed to co-operate at Strasburg, at Cross Keys, and at Port Republic. And greater generals than either Shields or Fremont have met with little better success in attempting the same manśuvre. At both Eylau and Bautzen Napoleon was deprived of decisive victory by his failure to ensure the co-operation of his widely separated columns.
Jackson and A. P. Hill, on the morning of the 26th, were nearly fifteen miles apart. Intercommunication at the outset was ensured by the brigade under Branch; but as the advance progressed, and the enemy was met with, it became more difficult. The messengers riding from one force to the other were either stopped by the Federals, or were compelled to make long détours; and as they approached the enemy’s position, neither Hill nor Jackson was informed of the whereabouts of the other.
The truth is, that the arrangements made by the Confederate headquarter staff were most inadequate. In the first place, the order of the 24th, instructing Jackson to start from Slash Church at 3 a.m. on the 26th, and thus leading the other generals to believe that he would certainly be there at that hour, should never have been issued. When it was written Jackson’s advanced guard was at Beaver Dam Station, the rear brigades fifteen miles behind; and to reach Slash Church his force had to march forty miles through an intricate country, in possession of the enemy, and so little known that it was impossible to designate the route to be followed. To fix an hour of arrival so long in advance was worse than useless, and Jackson cannot be blamed if he failed to comply with the exact letter of a foolish order. As it was, so many of the bridges were broken, and so difficult was it to pass the fords, that if Dr. Dabney had not found in his brother, a planter of the neighbourhood, an efficient substitute for the guide headquarters should have provided, the Valley army would have been not hours but days too late. In the second place, the duty of keeping up communications should not have been left to Jackson, but have been seen to at headquarters. Jackson had with him only a few cavalry, and these few had not only to supply the necessary orderlies for the subordinate generals, and the escorts for the artillery and trains, but to form his advanced guard, for Stuart’s squadrons were on his left flank, and not in his front. Moreover, his cavalry were complete strangers to the country, and there were no
maps. In such circumstances the only means of ensuring constant communication was to have detached two of Stuart’s squadrons, who knew the ground, to establish a series of posts between Jackson’s line of march and the Chickahominy; and to have detailed a staff officer, whose sole duty would have been to furnish the Commander-in-Chief with hourly reports of the progress made, to join the Valley army.1 It may be remarked, too, that Generals Branch and Ewell, following converging roads, met near Shady Grove Church about 3 p.m. No report appears to have been sent by the latter to General A. P. Hill; and although Branch a little later received a message to the effect that Hill had crossed the Chickahominy and was moving on Mechanicsville,2 the information was not passed on to Jackson.
Neglect of these precautions made it impracticable to arrange a simultaneous attack, and co-operation depended solely on the judgment of Hill and Jackson. In the action which ensued on Beaver Dam Creek there was no co-operation whatever. Hill attacked and was repulsed. Jackson had halted at Hundley’s Corner, three miles distant from the battle-field. Had the latter come down on the Federal rear while Hill moved against their front an easy success would in all probability have been the result.
Nevertheless, the responsibility for Hill’s defeat cannot be held to rest on Jackson’s shoulders. On August 18, 1870, the Prussian Guards and the Saxon Army Corps
1 Of the events of June 26 Dr. Dabney, in a letter to the
author, writes as follows:—“Here we had a disastrous illustration of
the lack of an organised and intelligent general staff. Let my
predicament serve as a specimen. As chief of Jackson’s staff, I had
two assistant adjutant-generals, two men of the engineer department,
and two clerks. What did I have for orderlies and couriers? A detail
from some cavalry company which happened to bivouac near. The men
were sent to me without any reference to their local knowledge,
their intelligence, or their courage; most probably they were
selected for me by their captain on account of their lack of these
qualities. Next to the Commander-in-Chief, the Chief of the General
Staff should be the best man in the country. The brains of an army
should be in the General Staff. The lowest orderlies attached to it
should be the very best soldiers in the service, for education,
intelligence, and courage. Jackson had to find his own guide for his
march from Beaver Dam Station. He had not been furnished with a map,
and not a single orderly or message reached him during the whole
2 Branch’s Report, O.R., vol. ii, part ii, p. 882.
were ordered to make a combined attack on the village of St. Privat, the Guards moving against the front, the Saxons against the flank. When the order was issued the two corps were not more than two miles apart. The tract of country which lay between them was perfectly open, the roads were free, and inter-communication seemed easy in the extreme. Yet, despite their orders, despite the facilities of communication, the Guards advanced to the attack an hour and a half too soon; and from six o’clock to nearly seven their shattered lines lay in front of the position, at the mercy of a vigorous counterstroke, without a single Saxon regiment coming to their aid. But the Saxons were not to blame. Their march had been unchecked; they had moved at speed. On their part there had been no hesitation; but on the part of the commander of the Guards there had been the same precipitation which led to the premature attack on the Federal position at Beaver Dam Creek. It was the impatience of General Hill, not the tardiness of Jackson, which was the cause of the Confederate repulse.
We may now turn to the question whether Jackson was justified in not marching to the sound of the cannon. Referring to General Lee’s orders, it will be seen that as soon as Longstreet and D. H. Hill had crossed the Chickahominy the four divisions of the army were to move forward in communication with each other and drive the enemy from his position, Jackson, in advance upon the left, “turning Beaver Dam Creek, and taking the direction of Cold Harbour.”
When Jackson reached Hundley’s Corner, and drove the Federal infantry behind the Creek, the first thing to do, as his orders indicated, was to get touch with the rest of the army. It was already near sunset; between Hundley’s Corner and Mechanicsville lay a dense forest, with no roads in the desired direction; and it was manifestly impossible, under ordinary conditions, to do more that evening than to establish connection; the combined movement against the enemy’s position must be deferred till the morning. But the sound of battle to the south-west introduced a complication. “We distinctly heard,” says Jackson,
“the rapid and continued discharges of cannon.”1 What did this fire portend? It might proceed, as was to be inferred from Lee’s orders, from the heavy batteries on the Chickahominy covering Hill’s passage. It might mean a Federal counterstroke on Hill’s advanced guard; or, possibly, a premature attack on the part of the Confederates. General Whiting, according to his report, thought it “indicated a severe battle.”2 General Trimble, marching with Ewell, heard both musketry and artillery; and in his opinion the command should have moved forward;3 and whatever may have been Jackson’s orders, it was undoubtedly his duty, if he believed a hot engagement was in progress, to have marched to the assistance of his colleagues. He could not help them by standing still. He might have rendered them invaluable aid by pressing the enemy in flank. But the question is, What inference did the cannonade convey to Jackson’s mind? Was it of such a character as to leave no doubt that Hill was in close action, or might it be interpreted as the natural accompaniment of the passage of the Chickahominy? The evidence is conflicting. On the one hand we have the evidence of Whiting and Trimble, both experienced soldiers; on the other, in addition to the indirect evidence of Jackson’s inaction, we have the statement of Major Dabney. “We heard no signs,” says the chief of the staff, “of combat on Beaver Dam Creek until a little while before sunset. The whole catastrophe took place in a few minutes about that time; and in any case our regiments, who had gone into bivouac, could not have been reassembled, formed up, and moved forward in time to be of any service. A night attack through the dense, pathless, and unknown forest was quite impracticable.”4 It seems probable, then—and the Federal reports are to the same effect5—that the firing was only really heavy for a very short period, and that Jackson believed it
1 Jackson’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 553.
2 Whiting’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 562.
3 Trimble’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 614.
4 Letter to the author.
5 Porter’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 222. Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, p. 330.
to be occasioned by Hill’s passage of the Chickahominy, and the rout of the Federals from Mechanicsville. Neither Trimble nor Whiting were aware that Lee’s orders directed that the operation was to be covered by a heavy cannonade.
Obeying orders very literally himself, Jackson found it difficult to believe that others did not do the same. He knew that the position he had taken up rendered the line of Beaver Dam Creek untenable by the Federals. They would never stand to fight on that line with a strong force established in their rear and menacing their communications, nor would they dare to deliver a counterstroke through the trackless woods. It might confidently be assumed, therefore, that they would fall back during the night, and that the Confederate advance would then be carried out in that concentrated formation which Lee’s orders had dictated. Such, in all probability, was Jackson’s view of the situation; and that Hill, in direct contravention of those orders, would venture on an isolated attack before that formation had been assumed never for a moment crossed his mind.1
Hill, on the other hand, seems to have believed that if the Federals were not defeated on the evening of the 26th they would make use of the respite, either to bring up reinforcements, or to advance on Richmond by the opposite bank of the Chickahominy. It is not impossible that he thought the sound of his cannon would bring Jackson to his aid. That it would have been wiser to establish communication, and to make certain of that aid before attacking, there can be no question. It was too late to defeat Porter the same evening. Nothing was to be gained by immediate attack, and much would be risked. The last assault, in which the heaviest losses were incurred, was made just as night fell. It was a sacrifice of life as unnecessary as that of the Prussian Guard before St. Privat. At the same time, that General Hill did wrong in crossing the Chickahominy before he heard of his colleague’s approach is not a fair
1 Longstreet, on page 124 of his From Manassas to Appomattox, declares that “Jackson marched by the fight without giving attention, and went into camp at Hundley’s Corner, half a mile in rear of the enemy’s position. A reference to the map is sufficient to expose the inaccuracy of this statement.
accusation. To have lingered on the south bank would have been to leave Jackson to the tender mercies of the Federals should they turn against him in the forest. Moreover, it was Hill’s task to open a passage for the remaining divisions, and if that passage had been deferred to a later hour, it is improbable that the Confederate army would have been concentrated on the north bank of the Chickahominy until the next morning. It must be admitted, too, that the situation in which Hill found himself, after crossing the river, was an exceedingly severe test of his self-control. His troops had driven in the Federal outposts; infantry, cavalry, and artillery were retiring before his skirmishers. The noise of battle filled the air. From across the Chickahominy thundered the heavy guns, and his regiments were pressing forward with the impetuous ardour of young soldiers. If he yielded to the excitement of the moment, if eagerness for battle overpowered his judgment, if his brain refused to work calmly in the wild tumult of the conflict, he is hardly to be blamed. The patience which is capable of resisting the eagerness of the troops, the imperturbable judgment which, in the heat of action, weighs with deliberation the necessities of the moment, the clear vision which forecasts the result of every movement—these are rare qualities indeed.
During the night Porter fell back on Gaines’ Mill. While the engagement at Beaver Dam Creek was still in progress vast clouds of dust, rising above the forests to the north-west and north, had betrayed the approach of Jackson, and the reports of the cavalry left no doubt that he was threatening the Federal rear.
The retreat was conducted in good order, a strong rear-guard, reinforced by two batteries of horse-artillery, holding the Confederates in check, and before morning a second position, east of Powhite Creek, and covering two bridges over the Chickahominy, Alexander’s and Grapevine, was occupied by the Fifth Army Corps.
June 27, 5 a.m. New Bridge was now uncovered, and Lee’s army was in motion shortly after sunrise, Jackson crossing Beaver Dam Creek and moving due south in the direction of Walnut
Grove Church.1 The enemy, however, had already passed eastward; and the Confederates, well concentrated and in hand, pushed forward in pursuit; A. P. Hill, with Longstreet on his right, moving on Gaines’ Mill, while Jackson, supported by D. H. Hill, and with Stuart covering his left, marched by a more circuitous route to Old Cold Harbour. Near Walnut Grove Church Jackson met the Commander-in-Chief, and it is recorded that the staff officers of the Valley army, noting the eagerness displayed by General Lee’s suite to get a glimpse of “Stonewall,” then for the first time realised the true character and magnitude of the Valley campaign.
12 noon About noon, after a march of seven miles, A. P. Hill’s scouts reported that the Federals had halted behind Powhite Creek. The leading brigade was sent across the stream, which runs past Gaines’ Mill, and pressing through the thick woods found the enemy in great strength on a ridge beyond. Hill formed his division for attack, and opened fire with his four batteries. The enemy’s guns, superior in number, at once responded, and the skirmish lines became actively engaged. The Confederate general, despite urgent messages from his subordinates, requesting permission to attack, held his troops in hand, waiting till he should be supported, and for two and a half hours the battle was no more than an affair of “long bowls.”
The position held by the defence was emphatically one to impose caution on the assailants. To reach it the Confederates were confined to three roads, two from Mechanicsville, and one from Old Cold Harbour. These roads led each of them through a broad belt of forest, and then, passing through open fields, descended into a
1 Jackson’s division—so-called in Lee’s order—really consisted of three divisions:—
Jackson’s [Winder] Division
winding valley, from five hundred to a thousand yards in breadth. Rising near McGehee’s House, due south of Old Cold Harbour, a sluggish creek, bordered by swamps and thick timber, and cutting in places a deep channel, filtered through the valley to the Chickahominy. Beyond this stream rose an open and undulating plateau, admirably adapted to the movement of all arms, and with a slight command of the opposite ridge. On the plateau, facing west and north, the Federals were formed up. A fringe of trees and bushes along the crest gave cover and concealment to the troops. 60 feet below, winding darkly through the trees, the creek covered the whole front; and in the centre of the position, east of New Cold Harbour, the valley was completely filled with tangled wood.
Towards Old Cold Harbour the timber on the Confederate side of the ravine was denser than elsewhere. On the Federal left flank the valley of the Chickahominy was open ground, but it was swept by heavy guns from the right bank of the river, and at this point the creek became an almost impassable swamp.
Porter, who had been reinforced by 9,000 men under General Slocum, now commanded three divisions of infantry, four regiments of cavalry, and twenty-two batteries, a total of 36,000 officers and men. The moral of the troops had been strengthened by their easy victory of the previous day. Their commander had gained their confidence; their position had been partially intrenched, and they could be readily supported by way of Alexander’s and Grapevine Bridges from the south bank of the Chickahominy.
The task before the Confederates, even with their superior numbers, was formidable in the extreme. The wooded ridge which encircled the position afforded scant room for artillery, and it was thus impracticable to prepare the attack by a preliminary bombardment. The ground over which the infantry must advance was completely swept by fire, and the centre and left were defended by three tiers of riflemen, the first sheltered by the steep banks of the creek, the second halfway up the bluff,
covered by a breastwork, the third on the crest, occupying a line of shelter-trenches; and the riflemen were supported by a dozen batteries of rifled guns.1
But Lee had few misgivings. In one respect the Federal position seemed radically defective. The line of retreat on White House was exposed to attack from Old Cold Harbour. In fact, with Old Cold Harbour in possession of the Confederates, retreat could only be effected by one road north of the Chickahominy, that by Parker’s Mill and Dispatch Station; and if this road were threatened, Porter, in order to cover it, would be compelled to bring over troops from his left and centre, or to prolong his line until it was weak everywhere. There was no great reason to fear that McClellan would send Porter heavy reinforcements. To do so he would have to draw troops from his intrenchments on the south bank of the Chickahominy, and Magruder had been instructed to maintain a brisk demonstration against this portion of the line. It was probable that the Federal commander, with his exaggerated estimate of the numbers opposed to him, would be induced by this means to anticipate a general attack against his whole front, and would postpone moving his reserves until it was too late.
While Hill was skirmishing with the Federals, Lee was anxiously awaiting intelligence of Jackson’s arrival at Old Cold Harbour.
2.30 p.m. Longstreet was already forming up for battle, and at 2.30 Hill’s regiments were slipped to the attack. A fierce and sanguinary conflict now ensued. Emerging in well-ordered lines from the cover of the woods, the Confederates swept down the open slopes. Floundering in the swamps, and struggling through the abattis which had been placed on the banks of the stream, they drove in the advanced line of hostile riflemen, and strove gallantly to ascend the slope which lay beyond. “But brigade after brigade,” says General Porter, “seemed almost to melt away before the concentrated fire of our artillery and infantry; yet others pressed on, followed by supports daring and brave as their predecessors, despite their heavy losses and the disheartening
1 The remainder of the guns were in reserve.
effect of having to clamber over many of their disabled and dead, and to meet their surviving comrades rushing back in great disorder from the deadly contest.”1 For over an hour Hill fought on without support. There were no signs of Jackson, and Longstreet, whom it was not intended to employ until Jackson’s appearance should have caused the Federals to denude their left, was then sent in to save the day.
As on the previous day, the Confederate attack had failed in combination. Jackson’s march had been again delayed. The direct road from Walnut Grove Church to Old Cold Harbour, leading through the forest, was found to be obstructed by felled timber and defended by sharpshooters, and to save time Jackson’s division struck off into the road by Bethesda Church. This threw it in rear of D. H. Hill, and it was near 2 p.m. when the latter’s advanced guard reached the tavern at the Old Cold Harbour cross roads. No harm, however, had been done. A. P. Hill did not attack till half an hour later. But when he advanced there came no response from the left. A battery of D. H. Hill’s division was brought into action, but was soon silenced, and beyond this insignificant demonstration the Army of the Valley made no endeavour to join the battle. The brigades were halted by the roadside. Away to the right, above the intervening forest, rolled the roar of battle, the crash of shells and the din of musketry, but no orders were given for the advance.
Nor had Jackson’s arrival produced the slightest consternation in the Federal ranks. Although from his position at Cold Harbour he seriously threatened their line of retreat to the White House, they had neither denuded their left nor brought up their reserves. Where he was now established he was actually nearer White House than any portion of Porter’s army corps, and yet that general apparently accepted the situation with equanimity.
Lee had anticipated that Jackson’s approach would cause the enemy to prolong their front in order to cover their line of retreat to the White House, and so weaken
1 Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. ii, p. 337.
that part of the position which was to be attacked by Longstreet; and Jackson had been ordered1 to draw up his troops so as to meet such a contingency. “Hoping,” he says in his report, “that Generals A. P. Hill and Longstreet would soon drive the Federals towards me, I directed General D. H. Hill to move his division to the left of the wood, so as to leave between him and the wood on the right an open space, across which I hoped that the enemy would be driven.” But Lee was deceived. The Federal line of retreat ran not to the White House, but over Grapevine Bridge. McClellan had for some time foreseen that he might be compelled to abandon the York River Railway, and directly he suspected that Jackson was marching to Richmond had begun to transfer his line of operations from the York to the James, and his base of supply from the White House to Harrison’s Landing.
So vast is the amount of stores necessary for the subsistence, health, and armament of a host like McClellan’s that a change of base is an operation which can only be effected under the most favourable circumstances.2 It is evident, then, that the possibility of the enemy shifting his line of operations to the James, abandoning the York River Railroad, might easily have
This order was verbal; no record of it is to be found, and Jackson
never mentioned, either at the time or afterwards, what its purport
was. His surviving staff officers, however, are unanimous in
declaring that he must have received direct instructions from
General Lee. “Is it possible,” writes Dr. McGuire, “that Jackson,
who knew nothing of the country, and little of the exact situation
of affairs, would have taken the responsibility of stopping at Old
Cold Harbour for an hour or more, unless he had had the authority of
General Lee to do so? I saw him that morning talking to General Lee.
General Lee was sitting on a log, and Jackson standing up. General
Lee was evidently giving him instructions for the day.” In his
report (O.R., vol. ii, part i, p. 492) Lee says: “The arrival of
Jackson on our left was momentarily expected; it was supposed that
his approach would cause the enemy’s extension in that direction.”
2 The Army of the Potomac numbered 105,000 men, and 25,000 animals. 600 tons of ammunition, food, forage, medical and other supplies had to be forwarded each day from White House to the front; and at one time during the operations from fifty to sixty days’ rations for the entire army, amounting probably to 25,000 tons, were accumulated at the depot. 5 tons daily per 1,000 men is a fair estimate for an army operating in a barren country.
escaped the penetration of either Lee or Jackson. They were not behind the scenes of the Federal administrative system. They were not aware of the money, labour, and ingenuity which had been lavished on the business of supply. They had not seen with their own eyes the fleet of four hundred transports which covered the reaches of the York. They had not yet realised the enormous advantage which an army derives from the command of the sea.
Nor were they enlightened by the calmness with which their immediate adversaries on the field of battle regarded Jackson’s possession of Old Cold Harbour. Still, one fact was manifest: the Federals showed no disposition whatever to weaken or change their position, and it was clear that the success was not to be attained by mere manśuvre. Lee, seeing Hill’s division roughly handled, ordered Longstreet forward, while Jackson, judging from the sound and direction of the firing that the original plan had failed, struck in with vigour. Opposed to him was Sykes’ division of regulars, supported by eighteen guns, afterwards increased to twenty-four; and in the men of the United States Army the Valley soldiers met a stubborn foe. The position, moreover, occupied by Sykes possessed every advantage which a defender could desire. Manned even by troops of inferior mettle it might well have proved impregnable. The valley was wider than further west, and a thousand yards intervened between the opposing ridges. From either crest the cornfields sloped gently to the marshy sources of the creek, hidden by tall timber and dense undergrowth. The right and rear of the position were protected by a second stream, running south to the Chickahominy, and winding through a swamp which Stuart, posted on Jackson’s left, pronounced impassable for horsemen. Between the head waters of these two streams rose the spur on which stands McGehee’s house, facing the road from Old Cold Harbour, and completely commanding the country to the north and north-east. The flank, therefore, was well secured; the front was strong, with a wide field of fire; the Confederate artillery, even if it could
make its way through the thick woods on the opposite crest, would have to unlimber under fire at effective range, and the marsh below, with its tangled undergrowth and abattis, could hardly fail to throw the attacking infantry into disorder. Along the whole of Sykes’ line only two weak points were apparent. On his left, as already described, a broad tract of woodland, covering nearly the whole valley, and climbing far up the slope on the Federal side, afforded a covered approach from one crest to the other; on his right, a plantation of young pines skirted the crest of McGehee’s Hill, and ran for some distance down the slope. Under shelter of the timber it was possible that the Confederate infantry might mass for the assault; but once in the open, unaided by artillery, their further progress would be difficult. Under ordinary circumstances a thorough reconnaissance, followed by a carefully planned attack, would have been the natural course of the assailant. The very strength of the position was in favour of the Confederates. The creek which covered the whole front rendered a counterstroke impracticable, and facilitated a flank attack. Holding the right bank of the creek with a portion of his force, Jackson might have thrown the remainder against McGehee’s Hill, and, working round the flank, have repeated the tactics of Kernstown, Winchester, and Port Republic.
But the situation permitted no delay. A. P. Hill was hard pressed. The sun was already sinking. McClellan’s reserves might be coming up, and if the battle was to be won, it must be won by direct attack. There was no time for further reconnaissance, no time for manśuvre.
Jackson’s dispositions were soon made. D. H. Hill, eastward of the Old Cold Harbour road, was to advance against McGehee’s Hill, overlapping, if possible, the enemy’s line. Ewell was to strike in on Hill’s right, moving through the tract of woodland; Lawton, Whiting, and Winder, in the order named, were to fill the gap between Ewell’s right and the left of A. P. Hill’s division, and the artillery was ordered into position opposite McGehee’s Hill.
4 p.m. D. H. Hill, already in advance, was the first to move. Pressing forward from the woods, under a heavy fire of
artillery, his five brigades, the greater part in first line, descended to the creek, already occupied by his skirmishers. In passing through the marshy thickets, where the Federal shells were bursting on every hand, the confusion became great. The brigades crossed each other’s march. Regiments lost their brigades, and companies their regiments. At one point the line was so densely crowded that whole regiments were forced to the rear; at others there were wide intervals, and effective supervision became impossible. Along the edge of the timber the fire was fierce, for the Union regulars were distant no more than four hundred yards; the smoke rolled heavily through the thickets, and on the right and centre, where the fight was hottest, the impetuosity of both officers and men carried them forward up the slope. An attempt to deliver a charge with the whole line failed in combination, and such portion of the division as advanced, scourged by both musketry and artillery, fell back before the fire of the unshaken Federals. In the wood to the right Ewell met with even fiercer opposition. So hastily had the Confederate line been formed, and so difficult was it for the brigades to maintain touch and direction in the thick covert, that gaps soon opened along the front; and of these gaps, directly the Southerners gained the edge of the timber, the Northern brigadiers took quick advantage. Not content with merely holding their ground, the regular regiments, changing front so as to strike the flanks of the attack, came forward with the bayonet, and a vigorous counterstroke, delivered by five battalions, drove Ewell across the swamp. Part of Trimble’s brigade still held on in the wood, fighting fiercely; but the Louisiana regiments were demoralised, and there were no supports on which they might have rallied. Jackson, when he ordered Hill to the front, had sent verbal instructions-always dangerous-for the remainder of his troops to move forward inline of battle.”1 The young
1 The instructions, according to Dr. Dabney, ran as follows:—
”The troops are standing at ease along our line of march. Ride back rapidly along the line and tell the commanders to advance instantly en echelon from the left. Each brigade is to follow as a guide the right regiment of the brigade on the left, and to keep within supporting distance. Tell the commanders that if this formation fails at any point, to form line of battle and move to the front, pressing to the sound of the heaviest firing and attack the enemy vigorously wherever found. As to artillery, each commander must use his discretion. If the ground will at all permit tell them to take in their field batteries and use them. If not, post them in the rear.” Letter to the author.
The young staff officer to whom these instructions were entrusted, misunderstanding the intentions of his chief, communicated the message to the brigadiers with the addition that “they were to await further orders before engaging the enemy.” Partly for this reason, and partly because the rear regiments of his division had lost touch with the leading brigades, Ewell was left without assistance. For some time the error was undiscovered. Jackson grew anxious. From his station near Old Cold Harbour little could be seen of the Confederate troops. On the ridge beyond the valley the dark lines of the enemy’s infantry were visible amongst the trees, with their well-served batteries on the crests above. But in the valley immediately beneath, and as well as in the forest to the right front, the dense smoke and the denser timber hid the progress of the fight. Yet the sustained fire was a sure token that the enemy still held his own; and for the first time and the last his staff beheld their leader riding restlessly to and fro, and heard his orders given in a tone which betrayed the storm within.1 “Unconscious,” says Dabney, “that his veteran brigades were but now reaching the ridge of battle, he supposed that all his strength had been put forth, and (what had never happened before) the enemy was not crushed.”2 Fortunately, the error of the aide-de-camp had already been corrected by the vigilance of the chief of the staff, and the remainder of the Valley army was coming up.
Their entry into battle was not in accordance with the
1 It may be noted that Jackson’s command had now been
increased by two divisions, Whiting’s and D. H. Hill’s, but there
had been no increase in the very small staff which had sufficed for
the Valley army. The mistakes which occurred at Gaines’ Mill, and
Jackson’s ignorance of the movements and progress of his troops,
were in great part due to his lack of staff officers. A most
important message, writes Dr. Dabney, involving tactical knowledge,
was carried by a non-combatant.
2 Dabney, vol. ii, p. 194.
intentions of their chief. Whiting should have come in on Ewell’s right, Lawton on the right of Whiting, and Jackson’s division on the right of Lawton. Whiting led the way; but he had advanced only a short distance through the woods when he was met by Lee, who directed him to support General A. P. Hill.1 The brigades of Law and of Hood were therefore diverted to the right, and, deploying on either side of the Gaines’ Mill road, were ordered to assault the commanding bluff which marked the angle of the Federal position. Lawton’s Georgians, 3,500 strong, moved to the support of Ewell; Cunningham and Fulkerson, of Winder’s division, losing direction in the thickets, eventually sustained the attack of Longstreet, and the Stonewall Brigade reinforced the shattered ranks of D. H. Hill. Yet the attack was strong, and in front of Old Cold Harbour six batteries had forced their way through the forest.
As this long line of guns covered McGehee’s Hill with a storm of shells, and the louder crash of musketry told him that his lagging brigades were coming into line, Jackson sent his last orders to his divisional commanders: “Tell them,” he said, “this affair must hang in suspense no longer; let them sweep the field with the bayonet.” But there was no need for further urging. Before the messengers arrived the Confederate infantry, in every quarter of the battlefield, swept forward from the woods, and a vast wave of men converged upon the plateau. Lee, almost at the same moment as Jackson, had given the word for a general advance. As the supports came thronging up the shout was carried down the line, “The Valley men are here!” and with the cry of “Stonewall Jackson!” for their slogan, the Southern army dashed across the deep ravine. Whiting, with the eight regiments of Hood and Law, none of which had been yet engaged, charged impetuously against the centre. The brigades of A. P. Hill, spent with fighting but clinging stubbornly to their ground, found strength for a final effort. Longstreet threw in his last reserve against the triple line which had already decimated his division. Lawton’s Georgians bore back the regulars. D. H. Hill, despite the
1 Whiting’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part i, p. 563.
fire of the batteries on McGehee’s Hill, which, disregarding the shells of Jackson’s massed artillery, turned with canister on the advancing infantry, made good his footing on the ridge; and as the sun, low on the horizon, loomed blood-red through the murky atmosphere, the Confederate colours waved along the line of abandoned breastworks.
As the Federals retreated, knots of brave men, hastily collected by officers of all ranks, still offered a fierce resistance, and, supported by the batteries, inflicted terrible losses on the crowded masses which swarmed up from the ravine; but the majority of the infantry, without ammunition and with few officers, streamed in disorder to the rear. For a time the Federal gunners stood manfully to their work. Porter’s reserve artillery, drawn up midway across the upland, offered a rallying point to the retreating infantry. Three small squadrons of the 5th United States Cavalry made a gallant but useless charge, in which out of seven officers six fell; and on the extreme right the division of regulars, supported by a brigade of volunteers, fell back fighting to a second line. As at Bull Run, the disciplined soldiers alone showed a solid front amid the throng of fugitives. Not a foot of ground had they yielded till their left was exposed by the rout of the remainder. Of the four batteries which supported them only two guns were lost, and on their second position they made a determined effort to restore the fight. But their stubborn valour availed nothing against the superior numbers which Lee’s fine strategy had concentrated on the field of battle.
Where the first breach was made in the Federal line is a matter of dispute. Longstreet’s men made a magnificent charge on the right, and D. H. Hill claimed to have turned the flank of the regulars; but it is abundantly evident that the advent of Jackson’s fresh troops, and the vigour of their assault, broke down the resistance of the Federals.1 When the final attack developed, and along the whole front masses of determined men, in overwhelming
1 Porter himself thought that the first break in his line was made by Hood, at a point where he least expected it.” Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, pp. 335, 340.
numbers, dashed against the breastworks, Porter’s troops were well-nigh exhausted, and not a single regiment remained in reserve. Against the very centre of his line the attack was pushed home by Whiting’s men with extraordinary resolution. His two brigades, marching abreast, were formed in two lines, each about 2,000 strong. Riding along the front, before they left the wood, the general had enjoined his men to charge without a halt, in double time, and without firing. “Had these orders,” says General Law, “not been strictly obeyed the assault would have been a failure. No troops could have stood long under the withering storm of lead and iron that beat in their faces as they became fully exposed to view from the Federal line.”1 The assault was met with a courage that was equally admirable.2 But the Confederate second line reinforced the first at exactly the right moment, driving it irresistibly forward; and the Federal regiments, which had been hard pressed through a long summer afternoon, and had become scattered in the thickets, were ill-matched with the solid and ordered ranks of brigades which had not yet fired a shot. It was apparently at this point that the Southerners first set foot on the plateau, and sweeping over the intrenchments, outflanked the brigades which still held out to right and left, and compelled them to fall back. Inspired by his soldierly enthusiasm for a gallant deed, Jackson himself has left us a vivid description of the successful charge. “On my extreme right,” he says in his report, “General Whiting advanced his division through the dense forest and swamp, emerging from the wood into the field near the public road and at the head of the deep ravine which covered the enemy’s left. Advancing thence through a number of retreating and disordered regiments he came within range of the enemy’s fire, who, concealed in an open wood and protected by breastworks, poured a destructive fire for a quarter of a mile into his advancing
1 Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, p. 363.
2 “The Confederates were within ten paces when the Federals broke cover, and leaving their log breastworks, swarmed up the hill in rear, carrying the second line with them in their rout.”—General Law, Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, p. 363.
line, under which many brave officers and men fell. Dashing on with unfaltering step in the face of these murderous discharges of canister and musketry, General Hood and Colonel Law, at the heads of their respective brigades, rushed to the charge with a yell. Moving down a precipitous ravine, leaping ditch and stream, clambering up a difficult ascent, and exposed to an incessant and deadly fire from the intrenchments, those brave and determined men pressed forward, driving the enemy from his well-selected and fortified position. In this charge, in which upwards of 1,000 men fell killed and wounded before the fire of the enemy, and in which 14 pieces of artillery and nearly a whole regiment were captured, the 4th Texas, under the lead of General Hood, was the first to pierce these strongholds and seize the guns.”1
How fiercely the Northern troops had battled is told in the outspoken reports of the Confederate generals. Before Jackson’s reserves were thrown in the first line of the Confederate attack had been exceedingly roughly handled. A. P. Hill’s division had done good work in preparing the way for Whiting’s assault, but a portion of his troops had become demoralised. Ewell’s regiments met the same fate; and we read of them “skulking from the front in a shameful manner; the woods on our left and rear full of troops in safe cover, from which they never stirred;” of “regiment after regiment rushing back in utter disorder;” of others which it was impossible to rally; and of troops retiring in confusion, who cried out to the reinforcements, “You need not go in; we are whipped, we can’t do anything!” It is only fair to say that the reinforcements replied, “Get out of our way, we will show you how to do it;“2 but it is not to be disguised that the Confederates at one time came near defeat. With another division in reserve at the critical moment, Porter might have maintained his line unbroken. His troops, had they been supported, were still capable of resistance.
1 Jackson’s Report, O.R., vol. xi, part 1, pp. 555, 556.
2 Reports of Whiting, Trimble, Bodes, Bradley T. Johnson, O.R., vol. xi, part i.
McClellan, however, up to the time the battle was lost, had sent but one division (Slocum’s) and two batteries to Porter’s support. 66,000 Federals, on the south bank of the Chickahominy, had been held in their intrenchments, throughout the day, by the demonstrations of 28,000 Confederates. Intent on saving his trains, on securing his retreat to the river James, and utterly regardless of the chances which fortune offered, the “Young Napoleon” had allowed his rearguard to be overwhelmed. He was not seen on the plateau which his devoted troops so well defended, nor even at the advanced posts on the further bank of the Chickahominy. So convinced was he of the accuracy of the information furnished by his detective staff that he never dreamt of testing the enemy’s numbers by his own eyesight. Had he watched the development of Lee’s attack, noted the small number of his batteries, the long delay in the advance of the supports, the narrow front of his line of battle, he would have discovered that the Confederate strength had been greatly exaggerated. There were moments, too, during the fight when a strong counterstroke, made by fresh troops, would have placed Lee’s army in the greatest peril. But a general who thinks only of holding his lines and not of annihilating the enemy is a poor tactician, and McClellan’s lack of enterprise, which Lee had so accurately gauged, may be inferred from his telegram to Lincoln: “I have lost this battle because my force is too small.”1
Porter was perhaps a more than sufficient substitute for the Commander-in-Chief. His tactics, as fighting a waiting battle, had been admirable; and, when his front was broken, strongly and with cool judgment he sought to hold back the enemy and cover the bridges. The line of batteries he established across the plateau—80 guns in all—proved at first an effective barrier. But the retreat of the infantry, the waning light, and the general dissolution of all order, had its effect upon the gunners. When the remnant of the 5th Cavalry was borne back in flight, the greater part of the batteries had already limbered up, and over the bare surface of the upland the Confederate infantry, shooting down
1 Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War.
the terrified teams, rushed forward in hot pursuit. 22 guns, with a large number of ammunition waggons, were captured on the field, prisoners surrendered at every step, and the fight surged onward towards the bridges. But between the bridges and the battlefield, on the slopes falling to the Chickahominy, the dark forest covered the retreat of the routed army. Night had already fallen. The confusion in the ranks of the Confederates was extreme, and it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. All direction had been lost. None knew the bearings of the bridges, or whether the Federals were retreating east or south. Regiments had already been exposed to the fire of their comrades, and in front of the forest a perceptible hesitation seized on both officers and men. At this moment, in front of D. H. Hill’s division, which was advancing by the road leading directly to the bridges, loud cheers were heard. It was clear that Federal reinforcements had arrived; the general ordered his troops to halt, and along the whole line the forward movement came quickly to a standstill. Two brigades, French’s and Meagher’s, tardily sent over by McClellan, had arrived in time to stave off a terrible disaster. Pushing through the mass of fugitives with the bayonet, these fine troops had crossed the bridge, passed through the woods, and formed line on the southern crest of the plateau. Joining the regulars, who still presented a stubborn front, they opened a heavy fire, and under cover of their steadfast lines Porter’s troops withdrew across the river.
Notwithstanding this strong reinforcement of 5,000 or 6,000 fresh troops, it is by no means impossible, had the Confederates pushed resolutely forward, that the victory would have been far more complete. “Winder,” says General D. H. Hill, “thought that we ought to pursue into the woods, on the right of the Grapevine Bridge road; but not knowing the position of our friends, nor what Federal reserves might be awaiting us in the woods, I thought it advisable not to move on. General Lawton concurred with me. I had no artillery to shell the woods in front, as mine had not got through the swamp. Winder,”
he adds, “was right; even a show of pressure must have been attended with great result.”1 Had Jackson been at hand the pressure would in all probability have been applied. The contagion of defeat soon spreads; and whatever reserves a flying enemy may possess, if they are vigorously attacked whilst the fugitives are still passing through their ranks, history tells us, however bold their front, that, unless they are intrenched, their resistance is seldom long protracted. More than all, when night has fallen on the field, and prevents all estimate of the strength of the attack, a resolute advance has peculiar chances of success. But when his advanced line halted Jackson was not yet up; and before he arrived the impetus of victory had died away; the Federal reserves were deployed in a strong position, and the opportunity had already passed.
It is no time, when the tide of victory bears him forward, for a general “to take counsel of his fears.” It is no time to count numbers, or to conjure up the phantoms of possible reserves; the sea itself is not more irresistible than an army which has stormed a strong position, and which has attained, in so doing, the exhilarating consciousness of superior courage. Had Stuart, with his 2,000 horsemen, followed up the pursuit towards the bridges, the Federal reserves might have been swept away in panic. But Stuart, in common with Lee and Jackson, expected that the enemy would endeavour to reach the White House, and when he saw that their lines were breaking he had dashed down a lane which led to the river road, about three miles distant. When he reached that point, darkness had already fallen, and finding no traces of the enemy, he had returned to Old Cold Harbour.
On the night of the battle the Confederates remained where the issue of the fight had found them. Across the Grapevine road the pickets of the hostile forces were in close proximity, and men of both sides, in search of water, or carrying messages, strayed within the enemy’s lines. Jackson himself, it is said, came near capture. Riding forward in the darkness, attended by only a few staff
1 Battles and Leaders, vol. ii, p. 357.
officers, he suddenly found himself in presence of a Federal picket. Judging rightly of the enemy’s moral, he set spurs to his horse, and charging into the midst, ordered them to lay down their arms; and fifteen or twenty prisoners, marching to the rear, amused the troops they met on the march by loudly proclaiming that they had the honour of being captured by Stonewall Jackson. These men were not without companions. 2,830 Federals were reported either captured or missing; and while some of those were probably among the dead, a large proportion found their way to Richmond; 4,000, moreover, had fallen on the field of battle.1
The Confederate casualties were even a clearer proof of the severity of the fighting. So far as can be ascertained, 8,000 officers and men were killed or wounded.
Jackson’s losses were distributed as follows:—
Jackson’s own Division
The regimental losses, in several instances, were exceptionally severe. Of the 4th Texas, of Hood’s brigade, the first to pierce the Federal line, there fell 20 officers and 230 men. The 20th North Carolina, of D.H. Hill’s division, which charged the batteries on McGehee’s Hill, lost 70 killed and 200 wounded; of the same division the 3rd Alabama lost 200, and the 12th North Carolina 212; while two of Lawton’s regiments, the 31st and the 38th Georgia, had each a casualty list of 170. Almost every single regiment north of the Chickahominy took part in the action. The cavalry did nothing, but at least 48,000 infantry were engaged, and seventeen batteries are mentioned in the reports as having participated in the battle.
1 O.R., vol. xi, part i, pp. 40–42.
Site Copyright 2003-2008 Son of the South. For Questions or comments about this collection,
Are you Scared and Confused? Read My Snake Story, a story of hope and encouragement, to help you face your fears.